The Maroon men can both revile and thank the Rochester Yellow Jackets after this weekend. While Rochester trounced the Maroons last Friday, 71-54, and snapped a 10-game winning streak, Rochester compensated Chicago (15-9, 11-2 in UAA) with a shot at the UAA title this weekend by knocking off then top-ranked and undefeated Washington University (St. Louis) Sunday. The Yellow Jackets 83-82 victory over the Bears reduced Washington's lead to one game over both Chicago and Rochester, who now share second place. The win also kept the Chicago's hopes for the playoffs alive. In order to make the postseason, Chicago must beat the league-leading Bears this Saturday in St. Louis. But even in that case, the team's playoff entry remains uncertain--it depends, literally, on the flip of a coin.
If the Maroons win this Saturday, they will move into a first-place tie with both Washington and Rochester, assuming the Yellow Jackets beat Carnegie Mellon University this coming Saturday. Under these circumstances, the three teams would share the conference championship, but the automatic bid for the NCAA playoffs would be given based on the UAA tiebreaker system. All three teams negate each other in head-to-head, the first tie-breaker, and they all share the same undefeated record against all other teams in the lead, the second determinant.
The third tiebreaker, road conference record, drops Rochester, with two away losses, out of the running. Chicago and Washington, each with only one loss, would still remain tied. It would come down to the last mechanism installed by the UAA committee, which is a coin toss between the teams to determine who gets the automatic bid.
This allocation of the automatic bid means little for both Washington and Rochester. Each is the top-ranked team in its region and is all but guaranteed admittance to the tournament via the 14 second-place and regional bids given out by the NCAA tournament committee. Chicago, on the other hand, has no shot of getting to the big dance any other way; with most of their nine losses coming at the hands of regional teams, the Maroons are not even ranked in the top 10 in the Midwest region. They must win both the game and the coin toss to move on.
The Maroons narrowly missed being eliminated after losing badly in New York. Chicago and Rochester were tied at 16 after seven minutes of play, but then an 11-0 run by the Yellow Jackets gave them a lead they would never relinquish. A 42-36 halftime lead soon grew, and the Maroons never closed the lead to less than nine in the last 15 minutes of the second half. "They just executed well in every aspect," said second-year Mike Dolezal, who scored nine points on Friday.
While it wasn't a particularly good day for any one of the Chicago men, it was disastrous for fourth-year captain Derek Reich. Reich, who was recently nominated as one of the 10 finalists for the Division III basketball MVP, scored only 11 points in the game, including only four in the second half. Teammates reported that he felt ill during the game, but he didn't seem to struggle with execution. He simply had trouble stepping up. He took just seven shots in 37 minutes, converting only three. He also had 12 rebounds, but with no one else picking up Reich's offensive slack, Chicago didn't stand much of a chance.
It was a silent bus ride from New York to Pittsburgh that night. Most thought that the season was over; few expected Rochester to beat the 22-0 Washington squad. The foul mood continued through walk-through Saturday and did not make the Sunday game against the Carnegie Mellon Tartans any prettier. Chicago's 86-82 win was marred by 53 total fouls between the two teams. The calls constantly halted the game and kept many of the starters on the bench with penalties.
A 50-35 halftime Chicago edge slowly dwindled as starters got into foul trouble. When starting third-year guard Mike Lowney fouled out with 11:10 left to play and Dolezal followed suit five minutes later, it was up to the bench to help replace the tired starters and keep the Maroons' last hopes alive. Second-year Justin Waldie, who will be a key player on future Chicago teams, did just that, coming off the bench to score a career high of 23 points on 6-7 shooting. It was a perfect complement on Sunday to Reich's game high of 29 points and second-year Brian Cuttica's 14-point, 5-assist night; the combination of the three managed to keep the Maroons' lead from completely evaporating.
The Maroons have put themselves in a position to make this season a memorable one. Saturday could either be Derek Reich's last game in a Chicago jersey or a chance to add one more chapter to his legendary career.